Q&A: Volunteering and Wellbeing

1-7th June 2019 is Volunteers Week. This brings back fond memories for me as my first job after graduating was with Volunteer Centre Sefton.  I ran a project to help young people with mental health problems, learning disabilities and physical health problems to get into voluntary work. 

At the time my manager was Laura Hamilton and we’ve stayed in touch ever since.  Laura has continued to work in the voluntary sector and now has twenty years’ experience of managing volunteering projects, as well as volunteering herself in her free time. Laura now has her own business (Laura Hamilton Consulting); supporting organisations to improve and develop their volunteer programmes and mentoring and training volunteer managers. 

We got together recently over a brew and talked all things volunteering and wellbeing …

EF: Laura, thank you for taking the time today to share your thoughts and experience, please can you start off by telling us a bit about your career in the voluntary sector? 

LH: I’ve worked in the voluntary sector since the year 2000 – I was a recent graduate, I’d just moved to Liverpool and I was feeling uncertain about my next steps. I knew I didn’t want to work in the corporate sector and I was longing to find a career that was ethical and made some sort of positive difference to the world. If I’m honest, I was a little bit lost. It was my experience of volunteering that showed me that I could combine my love of working with people with promoting social change. Over the last 20 years I’ve been lucky to work with thousands of volunteers from diverse backgrounds, as both a project coordinator and volunteer manager. I’ve been able to see first-hand how volunteering can help people grow and change, be happier and healthier, as they make a difference to the lives of others.

EF: Wow, that sounds fantastic! You mention that you had been a volunteer yourself, so what are we talking about when it comes to volunteering, what kind of opportunities are out there?

LH: There are so many different types of volunteering opportunities and roles available these days; from helping to improve your local area through conservation volunteering, to mentoring or coaching young people, visiting an older person who’s isolated, running an art group or support group, helping at a summer play scheme or with a local playgroup, answering calls on a telephone helpline, raising awareness about mental health, coaching sport, helping in hospices or hospitals, raising funds for good causes through to sharing professional skills in areas such as finance or marketing or being a trustee for a local or national charity. The list really is endless. Some charities or groups will support you to create your own volunteer role or project and many will offer a level of flexibility around the time you give to volunteering.  There are also new opportunities that enable you to combine spending time with your family with volunteering or involve getting fit and healthy whilst volunteering.  It’s also worth saying that volunteering can be formal or informal, it can be about giving time to a big national charity or being part of a network of people who self-organise activities that make a difference. It could also involve campaigning about an issue you feel passionate about.

EF: There is certainly a lot of choice and flexibility by the sounds of it.  How can volunteering help people who are struggling with depression and anxiety?

LH: Studies have found that volunteering can help improve your mental and physical health and wellbeing as well as increasing social connections with others.  There’s evidence that volunteering can lower your blood pressure, help you live longer and reduce loneliness. However, it is worth saying that these positive effects don’t happen for everyone and they are shaped by factors such as how often you volunteer, whether the experience is enjoyable and your motivations for volunteering.

In terms of depression and anxiety, I have seen how volunteering can be helpful, in terms of:

  • having a positive focus to your day and giving you a sense of purpose and meaning 
  • feeling valued and appreciated for what you choose to give and share through volunteering
  • being around people and making new friendships 
  • being “other-focused” –  by this I mean having an experience that takes you out of yourself and focusses you on the needs of others or that is absorbing in a different way (for example learning a new skill, being in nature)
  • offering a chance to have new experiences or to try out something different

EF: Can you think of anyone you have worked with who has overcome depression or anxiety at least in part through their voluntary work?  Without giving too much away can you tell us something of their story?

LH: I have seen this happen for many, many volunteers over the years; from people who struggled to leave the house or had been unable to work due to mental illness, through to people living with short or long term depression and anxiety. Volunteering has provided opportunities for people to take small steps towards creating a different kind of life or career, or simply to bring more positive, enjoyable and rewarding experiences into their lives.  

I believe that volunteering provides a fantastic opportunity to give to others, to share ourselves and our skills, time and energy, and to be compassionate. Seeing that we have made a difference to the world, no matter how small, being more connected to others and wanting to give of ourselves can be hugely beneficial for our wellbeing and our happiness. 

EF: On a more personal level what kind of voluntary work have you done and how has that benefited your emotional wellbeing?

LH: I’ve done a range of different things; from peer education around sexual health to litter picks, planting and conservation work, staffing a telephone helpline, volunteering at Manchester Literature Festival, raising awareness and delivering training as a volunteer with a local HIV charity and being a trustee. Recently, I’ve been doing some volunteering with a group that supports families to take action on climate change. 

Volunteering got me through some difficult times, helped me make friends in a new city, supported me to develop new skills and then gave me the confidence to apply for my first proper job. It has helped me feel part of my local community and given me the opportunity, time and again, to get out of my own head and away from my own worries and to feel that I was doing something, however small, to help others.

EF: What steps would someone need to take if they were interested in doing some voluntary work?

LH: These days you can find lots of information online about volunteering. If there’s already a cause or a charity you have a connection to, you could take a look at their website; many will have specific pages about volunteering.  

You could also use an online platform such as: do-it.org to search for an opportunity in your local area and/or that matches a particular interest or cause. 

If you live in an area that has a Volunteer Centre, you could get in touch with them – they will often hold a directory of local volunteering opportunities and can signpost you to organisations.

If you’re a young person, you might want to check out: www.iwill.org.uk

If you’re interested in sports volunteering, there’s information available on the Sport England website.

Organisations will also often hold events during Volunteers’ Week follow the hashtag #VolunteersWeek on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. 

It’s worth thinking about what you’re interested in or passionate about and how much time you want to give. I’d also recommend taking your time to find an organisation that feels like the right fit for you – it’s ok to ask questions and to start slowly. Some organisations offer taster sessions or one-off opportunities, which can be a good chance to see how you feel. There is also no such thing a silly question – if things are ever unclear or you’re not feeling happy in your volunteering, talk to someone! The volunteer manager or co-ordinator can be a useful person to talk things through with.

EF: Thank you, Laura, for taking the time to talk to me today, and for such encouraging and inspiring words – Happy Volunteers Week!